Redfield & Wilton Strategies have conducted a series of polls in the six ‘swing states’ likely to determine the 2020 US Presidential Election. In our latest polling, we contrasted the views of voters on Trump’s presidency, Biden’s vice-presidency and senatorial career, and each of their 2020 campaigns. Moreover, we also tracked public opinion on how the major candidates compare across a range of key issues, which provides some evidence to explain Biden’s lead in the race across the six swing states.
In the three Midwestern swing states, an overall majority of the public disapproves of Donald Trump’s overall job performance since he became President: 54% of Wisconsinites, 51% of Michiganders, and 50% of Pennsylvanians disapprove of Trump’s performance to date. A plurality of respondents in Florida (46%), North Carolina (46%) and Arizona (48%) also disapprove of the President’s job performance.
Nevertheless, Trump continues to command extremely high levels of support from the voters who first elected him to Presidential office. Among Trump 2016 voters, 72% to 90% approve of Trump’s job performance over the last three and a half years, contributing to the greater enthusiasm expressed by respondents who are likely to vote for Trump in 2020 in comparison to respondents who are likely to vote for Biden.
The US swing state public is strongly divided on whether the President has delivered or is delivering on his key campaign promises from 2016. In North Carolina (43%) and Florida (44%), a plurality agree that Trump has taken actions which mirror his promises from four years ago. Nevertheless, pluralities in Pennsylvania (41%), Arizona (41%), Michigan (44%) and Wisconsin (43%) disagree that Trump has delivered on his key campaign promises.
Despite serving as President for three and a half years, Trump continues to be viewed as a political ‘outsider’ in this election by a clear plurality of respondents in all six swing states. Although Trump’s commitment to ‘draining the swamp’ has been questioned, it is clear that many Americans believe the President continues to operate outside the D.C. bubble.
The perception of Trump as an ‘outsider’ may be reinforced when he is contrasted with his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, who has spent decades in Washington as both a Senator and as Vice President. However, this experience might not necessarily work against Biden: in all six swing-states surveyed, a plurality of the public believes that the legislation and political changes Biden has spearheaded as a Senator and as Vice President have done more good to the United States than bad. Moreover, less than a third of respondents across all the swing-states disagree that Biden’s career has done more good than bad to the US.
During the initial stages of his campaign, Biden positioned himself as a ‘return to normal’ candidate who pledged a return to the relative stability characterised by the Obama Administration. In recent weeks, however, Biden has argued that his Presidency could provide “an opportunity to make some really systemic change”, while his former Democratic Primary opponent Bernie Sanders has said Biden’s current agenda would make the Democratic candidate “the most progressive president since F.D.R.” Despite the Democrats now asserting that Biden’s candidacy provides a vision for a new future, a majority, or clear plurality, of the public in US swing states continues to view Biden’s pitch as more about ‘returning to how things were before Donald Trump’ than ‘a vision of a new future’.
Notably, a strong plurality of respondents who are likely to vote for the Democrat candidate in November in Wisconsin (45%), Michigan (46%), Florida (45%) and Arizona (45%) consider Biden’s campaign as a pitch to returning to a pre-Trump era, and a majority of likely Biden voters in North Carolina (50%) and Pennsylvania (51%) also hold this view.
In five of the key swing-states 49% to 56% of the public who consider that Biden’s campaign to be more about returning to how things were before Trump’s Presidency believe that this is actually a weak pitch. Florida is an outlier in this instance, as a plurality (49%) of respondents consider that Biden’s call for normalcy is a strong pitch rather than a weak pitch (43%). In the five swing states except Florida, only 32-40% of respondents consider focusing on a return to the pre-Trump era is a ‘strong pitch’.
Although 58% to 69% of the likely Biden voters consider a campaign based on returning to how things were before Trump to be a strong pitch, a significant minority (16%-28%) of those who currently plan to vote Democratic in the Presidential Election believe this to be a weak pitch. It may be the case that the proportion of Democratic leaning voters who consider Biden’s pitch ‘weak’ are positioned on the left of the party and are not inspired by his tendency to point to his past record in Government.
Since his election, Trump has nominated two Supreme Court Justices: Neil Gorsuch and, controversially, Brett Kavanuagh. Interestingly, Gorsuch has not stuck to the Republican line on judicial decisions, having recently voted to dismiss a Louisiana law to curtail abortion access, as well as voting for extending workplace discrimination protections to LGBTQ Americans. After these court rulings, Trump tweeted that the “horrible and politically charged” decisions of the Supreme Court underlined the need to vote for his re-election. The political significance of the Supreme Court nominations has been an electoral issue before. In an exit poll for the 2016 election, after Senate Leader Mitch McConnell had successfully stalled the confirmation of Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, 20% of the US public stated that the Supreme Court was the most important factor in their voting decision.
Ultimately, although Trump has attempted to boost his campaign and energise his base by highlighting his determination to adjust the composition of the Supreme Court, across all six swing states, respondents were more likely to believe that Joe Biden, rather than Donald Trump, has the characteristics of someone who is likely to pick the best Supreme Court Justices.
Another major difference between the two major presidential candidates is their starkly different approaches to foreign policy. Trump has questioned the benefits of active US involvement in the Middle East, while Biden has said he would deal with Iran through diplomacy. Trump has met multiple times with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whereas Biden has said he would refuse to meet Kim without preconditions. Trump has angered NATO members by announcing he will reduce the number of U.S troops in Germany and has abandoned the Paris Climate Agreement signed by his predecessor’s administration. In contrast, Biden has committed to strengthening NATO and re-joining the Paris Agreement. Overall, although our research has indicated that voters believe Trump will be ‘tough on China’, strong pluralities across the swing-states consider that Biden ‘can work with foreign leaders’ more effectively than Trump.
While the Trump campaign may argue that his form of diplomacy enables him to put ‘America first’, Americans across all swing-states polled believe that Biden is more likely to stand up for the interests of the United States.
In order for the US to recover effectively from the wide-ranging health and economic challenges posed by coronavirus, effective bi-partisan co-operation may be necessary. Biden has stressed his abilities to work across the aisle since the earliest stages of his Presidential run, citing his work alongside Mitch McConnell during the Obama Administration to raise taxes. Although derided by his Democratic opponents at that stage, Biden’s longstanding commitment to bipartisanship may benefit his campaign given the unprecedented circumstances: Americans throughout the six swing-states believe that Joe Biden is more willing to work with the other party than the current President Donald Trump.
Biden also scores favourably against Trump when the candidates are compared in terms of their level of understanding of the problems afflicting America. Recent polling has indicated that nine out of ten Americans believe that racism and police brutality are ‘problems’ in the country, while our own research highlights that Americans remain pessimistic about the country’s future in relation to the coronavirus pandemic. Across the swing states, the public is significantly more likely to consider that Biden understands the seriousness of such problems, which may indicate that Americans believe Trump’s campaign has not understood the mood of the US public.
Ultimately, our analysis has indicated that many Americans disapprove of Trump’s Presidency, yet he continues to retain loyal support among his base. Trump is still seen by the US public as a political ‘outsider’, and a significant proportion of the public consider that the President has successfully achieved the promises he made during the 2016 campaign. Biden’s career to date is viewed generally favourably, yet some consider his current campaign to be a weak pitch that lacks a fresh vision. Though our analysis indicates that voters continue to trust Trump on the economy and China-US relations, Biden outperforms the incumbent President when the public are asked which candidate understands the country’s problems, can stand up for US interests, can work with foreign leaders, and will select the best Supreme Court Justices..